“It’s like Piccadilly Circus round here” is a phrase often used when somewhere is chaotically busy, just like the road junction was until the layout was changed in the 1980s.
Up until that point the famous Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain was the central point of the Circus (circle or roundabout) where Regent St, Piccadilly, Coventry St and Shaftesbury Avenue all converged. Not only was it traffic mayhem, it was also (and still is) a meeting point.
It’s also where London’s shopping and entertainment districts meet, and in my own mind, I think of Piccadilly Circus as the centre of the West End.
The Circus was built in 1819 to connect Piccadilly with John Nash’s Regent St, but when Shaftesbury Avenue was constructed in 1886 it lost its circular shape, and now that the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain has been moved from its central position to improve traffic flow, it looks quite a bit different from its original creation.
The fountain, commemorating the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, was erected in 1893, and for years I was one of many who believed that the statue on top was that of Eros, the Greek God of Love, but in actual fact it’s his brother Anteros. If the sculptor, Sir Alfred Gilbert, had created the first Greek God, Chaos, on the top it might have been less confusing and more appropriate somehow.
The Circus also includes some buildings of note such as the Criterion Theatre and London Pavilion, which is currently home to Ripley’s Believe It or Not attraction, but undoubtedly the biggest attraction of all still has to be the illuminated advertising signs on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Glasshouse St.
The idea of illuminating Piccadilly Circus with advertising signs started in 1908 and for many years were lit by neon, but these days LED displays have superseded them.
In October 2017 a new high resolution single interactive display replaced the older advertising board. There are supposed to be 11.6 million bulbs which add up to a very clear high definition screen that is also capable of reacting to a particular moment in time, such as the weather.
Unfortunately, the rising cost of renting these spaces has seen the number of displays reduced. I remember when it seemed like the whole Circus was surrounded with neon displays, but it was also a time when it was crawling with unsavoury characters as well.
Piccadilly Circus, along with nearby Soho, has seen a creeping gentrification in recent years which makes it a safer place for tourists to come, but from a personal point of view I liked the edginess that it used to have. Rubbing shoulders with drug addicts, prostitutes, and rent boys as the traffic raced around ‘Eros’ under the neon lights was one of life’s great experiences – not that I had anything to do with that sort of thing of course!